Books: The spies of 1948 who helped win the war

Behind enemy lines at the birth of the Israeli secret service.

June 28, 2019 08:32
3 minute read.
Books: The spies of 1948 who helped win the war

Matti Friedman, who grew up in Toronto and lives in Jerusalem, is an Israeli-Canadian journalist and author who is also an op-ed contributor to ‘The New York Times’. (photo credit: Courtesy)

I firmly believe that journalists should write more books. Partly that is because of my chosen occupation, but it’s also because journalists tend to write engagingly. I read almost all of Matti Friedman’s Spies of No Country over one long Shabbat afternoon, and there were times I felt I was reading a spy novel, rather than a non-fiction account.

Like Friedman’s other books, the book is well-researched. It is hard to believe that so little has been written about the origins of the Israeli spy system, and especially the role that Mizrachim – Jews from Arab countries – played in the pre-State and early State period.

Friedman describes the exploits of four mista’arvim, which literally means “those who behave as Arabs.” In this case they are Arabs, four Jewish young men: Gamliel Cohen (alias Yussuf) born in Damacus, Isaac Shoshan (alias Abdul Karim) born in Aleppo, Havakuk Cohen (alias Ibrahim) born in Yemen, and Yakuba Cohen (alias Jamil) born in Jerusalem. All were between 20 and 25 when they began working for the nascent secret service, and only one of them had a high-school diploma. Three of them were named Cohen, which sometimes made things a little confusing when reading the book.

Only Isaac Shoshan is still alive, age 93, when Friedman was writing the book. Friedman describes frequent visits to his apartment on the seventh floor in a nondescript building near Tel Aviv. It is these conversations that form the meat of the book.

“His words were measured; chattiness wasn’t a quality these men respected,” Friedman writes. “His memory was a sharp blade. Sometimes it seemed as if the Independence War had just ended or was still on.”

The book focuses on the 20 months leading up to the 1948 war. I personally found the story of Gamliel Cohen, who set up shop in Beirut for several years, the most interesting. Pre-state Israel at that time was 90% Ashkenazi, or Jews from Eastern Europe. Immigrants from Arab countries were essential to spy on Israel’s Arab neighbors. Especially after 1948, when war broke out, the mista’arvim played an essential role.

“It was a curious feature of life in the Arab section that the men refused to call themselves agents or spies, as I’ve been doing in these pages,” he writes. “Those terms were considered dishonorable. Instead they chose a peculiar word, one that exists in Hebrew and Arabic, but has no parallel in English. The word mista’arvim in Hebrew or musta’aribin in Arabic translates as “one who become like Arabs.”

For several months in 1948, three of the four spies were together in Beirut: one ran a sweets shop, two others a kiosk next to a Christian school.

“The men rented rooms around town and tried to create plausible lives,” Friedman writes. “They chatted up the people they met, especially anyone connected to the army or government. Gamliel read the papers and prepared a summary, which Havakuk encoded, sending a daily message with anything worthwhile – descriptions of parliamentary debates, bellicose statements by Arab leaders, and signs of rising or flagging enthusiasm for the war.”

The spies have quite a few close calls. Right at the beginning of the book, Gamliel is in the Arab section of Haifa where he is supposed to pick up his ticket to Beirut. The travel agency is closed and passersby become suspicious of Yussef. Posters in the neighborhood warn of potential spies in the neighborhood.

“The distance between alive and dead had already become negligible – the length of an incorrect verb, an inconsistent reply to a sharp question,” he said.

As a student of Arabic for many years, I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where I could pass as an Arab, although I was once told by a taxi driver in Cairo, “You must be Lebanese-American. You have blue eyes and a lot of mistakes in your Arabic.”

These four men were able to pass because they were Arabs. But they were also Jews, and their story makes compelling reading.

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